It was literally written in stone if we are to believe the tale. Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies,” and Sam Harris refers to lying as “the sin that paves the way to every other sin.” We are taught from the youngest age that we should not lie and we learned that the punishment can be severe because the consequences of lying are severe. But also true is that from our youngest years, we are put in a double bind. Not only are we taught that we mustn’t lie, but we are also taught that we must lie. There are times, you see, where telling the truth could hurt someone’s feelings, or result in some kind of social faux pas or that it’s just too complicated. Thus the little white lie, that “harmless” even virtuous act of lying that nobody will ever find out about (we hope). We’re taught that we should never lie, and yet we are not taught what it means to walk through life truthfully. We are instead socialized into the nuance of good lies and bad lies, the art of lying, that some people “can’t handle the truth,” and so we manufacture acceptable answers that are not truthful.
Sam Harris, in his little book, “Lying,” suggests that none of us will go to bed at night “without having told several lies over the course of the day,” and that roughly 10% of all communication between spouses is deceptive, 38% among college students. I think we even harden ourselves to how we come to accept our many untruths. There are some folks who actually pride themselves on being “honest to a fault.” I take that to mean that they are not of course, that they do not have the same understanding of honesty that I have, but rather what they mean is that they are blunt, which is not at all the same thing. Nobody is honest to a fault.
All of this requires that we have a common understanding of what lying is and what constitutes a lie. That line can be hard to navigate. We can even lie by saying true things. We can lie by not saying anything at all. Harris defines it thus: “To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” Seems simple enough and yet it is so very difficult – as anyone who has kids knows. It is an act of courage and strength to be truthful when it’s required of us, to have hard conversations.
“Does this outfit make me look fat?”
“Daddy, am I going to die from this disease?”
“Have you ever been unfaithful to me?”
“Should we tell our mother of your terminal diagnosis? It would crush her!”
“What do you think of my new song?”
“Is Santa Claus real?”
When I started therapy years ago, I wrestled with my discomfort of not having a solid ethical understanding and basis around what it means to really walk through life truthfully. We aren’t taught how to do that in religious texts and the institutions of socialization perpetuate the paradox of the imperative against lying vis-à-vis the situations where it’s (apparently) necessary. To whom do I owe the truth? How much of the truth do I owe people in different contexts? What is the ethical way to deal with people who insist on answers but don’t deserve them? Where do boundaries come in? Is lying ever justified, and if so when, and under what circumstances? How do we integrate a full commitment to being truthful with kindess? What do we make of the white lie? (Hint: don’t do it! The smallest lies erode trust and even white lies are associated with dissatisfaction in relationships.)
I remember the exact day I asked my therapist these questions to try to understand lying and truth-telling and the huge impact it has on trust, on all of our important relationships, on our own reputations. I asked her in the context of marriage. They’re hard questions, and I remember her answer well. It was not that far from Harris’s. When we are asked a direct question by our partners, we owe a direct and truthful response and we are entitled to the same. That still left a lot of real estate to try to understand and navigate these questions, and it’s certainly way too much for a blog post. But the bottom line is that people deserve an accurate picture of the landscape on which they’re basing their well-being. To deprive them of this is to deprive them of their autonomy, their ability to make life-decisions based on an accurate picture of reality.
The frequency and ease with which we can move into and out of truthfulness and how important this is to everything valuable in my life set me on a long path of liberation that I imagine I will travel till my end of days. We don’t lie always with malicious intent (although we do sometimes), but sometimes as a matter of convenience, weakness, cowardice even, shame, avoiding responsibility or accountability, to make ourselves look good, or maybe because sometimes we don’t know how, how to use the right words, how to be truthful with kindness, grace, and growth as the goal but without sacrificing truthfulness.
I actually teach from this little book by Sam Harris. What could the ethics of lying possibly have to do with the music industry? It doesn’t take long for that question to answer itself. If we want career longevity, if we want our reputations to precede us as someone who is on the level, someone whose word is solid, someone who will “give it to me straight, someone I can trust,” whose “praise will not be mistaken for flattery,” all things in short supply in the biz, the truth is right at the center. From artist management and learning to level with our artist-clients without dragging them in to every detail, to working with our bandmates, other artists and gatekeepers it’s right at the center.
What does it mean to walk through life truthfully and how do we learn it? For me, an interest in ethics, years of therapy and my education took me down this road. Later, Sam Harris and “Lying” became a catalyst to more rigorous studies in ethics more generally. Picking up a used replacement copy for $9 led to writing this. I recommend it. The hardcover version includes an interview between Harris and the philosophy professor that changed his life at Stanford as a bonus and even still, the whole book is only 95 pages. It’s not a comprehensive treatise but it’s a good read with lots of examples and nuance, excellent as food for thought and perhaps a good starting point for further inquiry for anyone interested.
I can’t write about lying without thinking of the lyrics to the song The Trouble With Lies, by Adam Again, written by the late Gene Eugene, my friend and partner at Brainstorm Artists, who also intimately understood this battle.
The trouble with lies
Is that you start to forget where the real man hides
The trouble with lies
When you tell them you still got to sell them
With the look in your eyes
Oh, that’s the trouble with lies
As far as I’m concerned
With the lessons I’ve learned
I’m determined to try and survive